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Updates, Updating, and Updated

Thursday, August 28, 2008
A few site changes:

First, I added a Twitter feed over on the right hand side, mainly so that there will be more frequent updates. How fun.

Secondly, I'm probably going to be changing the layout soon. I like the visual look of this one, which renders nicely at a decent resolution in Safari and Firefox/Camino, but it looks like poo when rendered for the IE folks. Also, the third column disappears when the browser window is too narrow.

Finally, I may go back to having Blogger host parts of this website, to increase reliability (ha, ha) and decrease the (embarrassingly small) load on the server. Okay, bad reasons, but whatever. It'll be a project because I have a lot of images that will break when I do it.

Movie Review: Prince Caspian

Tuesday, August 26, 2008
I had the opportunity to see Prince Caspian the other day at the Northern Lights. I know it's been out for a while and I'd wanted to see it earlier, but circumstances didn't line up the way I'd planned on.

Anyway, the movie was good. It's been just over two and a half years since I saw The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (the first book in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. Prince Caspian follows the fate of the titular character as he's escaping sure murder at the hands of his uncle, the king of Narnia's neighboring land. Incidentally, it's this neighboring land had been periodically attacking Narnia for the past while and nearly killed all inhabitants, so when Caspian flees there he's not exactly greeted warmly.

The children from the first movie are recalled to Narnia to help Caspian in his quest to regain the throne and bring peace to the world. Much bravery follows and, rest assured, children are shown once again that treachery and deceit will lose in the end. Lesson learned.

However, the movie's quite well done. While I didn't think it was as good as the first one (if I could have a dime for any time that phrase has ever been uttered...) I still enjoyed it. The actor who portrays Prince Caspian does tall, dark, and handsome alarmingly well. Anyway, the special effects were nearly flawless and the acting was good, it just felt more disjointed and didn't seem to flow as easily as the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Last word on Prince Caspian? Worth seeing if you liked the first one, definitely worth the rental.

Video Chat

Monday, August 25, 2008
It astounds me in this day and age of ubiquitous internet access that more people don't use video chat. I feel like I've been using video chat in one form or another for at least five or six years now, and yet it's barely taken off at all.

Studies have shown that communication is less than 10% verbal; the other 90% is non-verbal clues. That means that it's not so much what you say but how you say it. Wouldn't it make sense to include as much context in a conversation as possible? One of the reasons I hate talking on the phone is that I can't look at someone. I'm staring off into space imagining the person I'm talking to, but all I get is a scratchy voice on the other end of my phone.

With video chat, however, I see the person. I can make eye contact (sort of) but I can see if they look bored, excited, engaged, tired, etc. I don't have to make a guess. Furthermore, it removes a lot of the ambiguity from the conversation. It just makes sense to use it!

Programs have existed for video chat for years and years. AOL Instant Messenger has a built-in video chat function. iChat for the Mac (which communicates over AIM) has even nicer and more intuitive functionality. Skype does video chat well, too... and these are just some low-end computer-to-computer functions. I've seen businesses prosper because they find a way to communicate face-to-face over the distances.

In the meantime, should you wish to, you can reach me on Skype under the username burtonsimmons or on iChat, where my .Mac username is burtonsimmons@mac.com. Talk to you there!

Thirty

Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Thirty years ago, today, I was born in a small apartment in downtown Portland. After that traumatic experience I started taking on more and more responsibilities for myself. I am now (statistically speaking) about 40% of the way through my life.

Here are some things I've done in the last 30 years (not in chronological order):
  • Learned to walk
  • Learned to read
  • Learned to do calculus
  • Graduated from high school
  • Graduated from college
  • Graduated from grad school
  • Got married
  • Got divorced
  • Learned to ride a motorcycle
  • Rode a motorcycle up and down the west coast
  • Started teaching motorcycle courses
  • Beat Super Mario Land
  • Beat Super Mario World
  • Beat Super Mario 64
  • Tried to find a job in two economic recessions
  • Lived in Portland
  • Lived in Salem
  • Lived in Eugene
The list goes on (and on, and on) but I guess what will be exciting is not what I've done but what I will do in the next thirty years. My head is full of dreams; we'll see if I can make them a reality.

Economic Systems

Sunday, August 17, 2008
I've been thinking, lately, as I listen to and read political arguments, about the "free market". The concepts of capitalism and the free market are very much intertwined and every time I think about them I'm reminded of a line from the book "The Undercover Economist". It goes something like, "3rd class travel is only there to scare 1st class passengers into paying more." And it dawned on me that, in many ways, that's the great failure of capitalism. That it elevates the few at the expense of the many - and that, since money begets money, the best advantage to have in a capitalistic society is to be born into wealth.

"But Burton," you might be saying to yourself, "you should have called the blog 'Why I'm a Socialist'!".

Well, gentle reader, the things is that I'm not one. I see socialism as a response to capitalism; the idea of raising the average from the middle instead of from the extremes. But, as history has shown, that doesn't tend to work very well because it depends on, among other things, a level of altruism that doesn't really exist.

Where I think I fall is the idea of "controlled capitalism". Free markets can be a wonderful thing, but there are arenas in which "we the people" shouldn't be forced to compete. Take, for instance, health care. I think it's a fairly universal belief that if we all had health care we, as a society, would be better off. This, however, may not be the most economical profitable situation for businesses, but it's the best moral decision as a people.

The idea of taking from the rich and giving to the poor is loved by the poor (of which there are many) and despised by the rich (of which there are few.) However, in many cases that's what a system of taxation does. A progressive income tax takes more from those who make more and funds services that can often be enjoyed by all. And I think that's what a government should do; it should moderate free markets and define areas where competition should be free and fierce and where services should be provided equally to all. It's a line of moderation, neither socialist nor purely capitalist.

Electric Cars

Saturday, August 16, 2008
Interest in electric cars has been rising in the past few years and, not surprisingly, came to a fervor pitch in the past couple months as gasoline prices shot through the roof. Sales of vehicles like the Toyota Prius skyrocketed and sales of vehicle like the Chevy Suburban fell apart like... a mid-eighties GM car*.

With that stage set, GM introduced (a while ago) the Chevy Volt.


It's a plug-in electric hybrid car, which means that it is powered by an electric motor that's fed off a battery. The battery can be charged from the grid and will take the car up to 40 miles, after which point an on-board generator will kick in. I'm not sure what the technical term for this is, but I would call it a serial electric drive system.

This differs from Toyota's system (called "Hybrid Synergy Drive") because theirs is a parallel system; that is to say that both the electric and the internal combustion engine power the wheels (most of the time).

I personally find the Chevy system to be very elegant. Why? Because the car's driven off pure electricity. Sure, it uses gasoline to power that system, but, as technologies progress, that electricity could be generated by anything. Perhaps a diesel system, which is more efficient? What about a fuel cell? The point is, it separates electricity generation from vehicle propulsion, and isolated the gasoline engine. I like that.

So there are a lot of people excited about this car. Some, however, are skeptical about GM's commitment to the idea. This is, after all, the corporation that brought us the EV1, the not-incredibly-popular all-electric car that they later unceremoniously destroyed despite the protests of a few dedicated fans. GM also has a history of not-entirely-supporting good ideas and failing to hedge their bets against changing consumer taste.

Will they follow through with this? Only time will tell.

* That, my friends, is experience talking.

"Gonna set my soul on fire"

Monday, August 11, 2008
It started, as so many things do, with a drink at the bar. This nameless bar, one of many at PDX, managed to serve me several reasonably-priced drinks while I waited for my flight to Las Vegas. My best friend was getting married and I’d promised that I’d be there for it, which meant threading the TSA maze and watching US Airways give just about the worst service possible.

Part 1: The US Airways experience. With my e-ticket in hand, I went to check in. I subsequently paid $15 to have my suitcase come with me, which is a rip-off. Then, I had to carry this suitcase over to the x-ray machine myself. I guess that $15 doesn’t get me anything except my clothing when I land. While on the plane they were selling drinks. Soda was $2, tea was $1, and alcoholic drinks were $7. Thirty seconds after that announcement, they got on the PA again with (and I swear this is true), “Does anyone on board have change for a $20?” At least we landed safely.

Part 2: I made the mistake of pre-purchasing a shuttle ride from the airport to my hotel. Apparently I’d just missed the one shuttle this company had, so I got to sit around outside (it was 102 degrees) while I waited for it to return, at which point I sat in the shuttle until it filled and we meandered our way from stoplight to stoplight, from hotel to hotel, until an hour an a half later I landed at the Sahara. Getting the seven miles from the airport to my room took almost 90 minutes; my flight from PDX to LAS took 131, but we covered over 1000 miles. Lesson: Any shuttle service will take you to your hotel and you don’t save any money booking ahead of time; just wait until you get there and figure out who has a shuttle ready to go and pay them.

The Sahara is an older, run-down casino at the north end of the strip. It is, however, technically on the strip (this is good) and it also has its own monorail station, which meant that it was more conveniently located than many other casinos that might have been physically closer to the Venetian, where the festivities were to be held and where I spent most of my time.

The fountain in front of the Venetian

What did I do while I was in Las Vegas? Lots. Mainly, however, I was hanging out with friends – some of whom I haven’t seen in years – and just having fun. We went to clubs, we played in the casinos (I walked out like $65 ahead), we ate, drank, and generally made merry. I had far more fun than last time I was in Las Vegas… possibly because of the general party atmosphere and partially because Las Vegas is just a little less seedy than it was five years ago.

I marveled, on my last night there, not only at the fact that we were in a casino playing poker in the hotel room, but that we were five friends from four cities in three states – all brought together because of our mutual close friend.

For those who are unaware, it seems that somebody decided to put a big city in the middle of the desert. For reasons it seems that God only knows, roughly 1.8 million people live in a city with streets too wide, sidewalks too narrow, and tap water that’s unpalatable. Looking around Las Vegas, I see one big façade. I see so much effort that’s designed to produce good looks, but, like any façade, belies a truth. A glimmering city in the middle of the desert; infrastructure for, as nearly as I can tell, casinos and strip clubs. Odds that are “so hot”, and yet, in the long run, the house will always win. The whole setup is boggling to the mind.

Two things really struck me as I was on my vacation. The first is that nobody smiles here. A city – tourists and residents alike – of people who aren’t smiling. The second thing I realized is that the infrastructure is built on manual labor. It seems that little is automated; people are everywhere, waiting to serve, entertain, or find any way to part you with your money. People here are paid to stand in one place, to be a physical presence, to say the same thing over and over and over again, day after day. I just don’t get it. Service everywhere was universally (and inexplicably) slow; like nobody had it “figured out”, and yet with all these people doing relatively simple tasks, you think it could be done with speed an efficiency. And you’d be wrong.

Caesar's Palace

This write-up was about my time in Las Vegas and, despite the apparent whining and criticism, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I had a great time with great people seeing great things. I was unencumbered by an agenda or a feeling that I had to get anything done; I just did my thing and had a great time.

And now I’m very happy to be back in Portland, where they'll voluntarily serve you plenty of water in the restaurants and people wear sensible shoes.

And I'm off...

Saturday, August 09, 2008
Off to my friend's wedding. I'll give you a hint: It's not in Charlotte or Buffalo...

The flight to Vegas!

Overdue Success?

According to the two fortunes I pulled out of a cookie the other day at lunch, I have a bunch of success coming to me...

two fortunes about all my future success!

I won't hold my breath on this one. I promise...

The chicken and the egg

Wednesday, August 06, 2008
I saw a headline over at Ars Technica that piqued my interest: "Piracy could put film industry out of business, group warns". I can't speak for anyone else (much as I try to), but I think this is one of the more ridiculous statements made this year.

My first argument, and this is a big one: How can piracy put the film industry out of business? If the industry goes out of business, there will be nothing to pirate. Now, this sort of thing has happened before, but it seems like maybe we'd learn from lessons past.

I mean, perhaps the industry's going the wrong way. When the adult price to see, for example, "Space Chimps" (1 hour, 21 minutes long) is $10 in Portland, how many people are going to pay that versus thinking "I could probably download that and see it for free"? How many people simply won't see it? I think any discussion of piracy needs to take a close look at the the composition of the pool of pirates: are they "would see" or "wouldn't see" people? The answer fundamentally changes the conversation.

Reading some of the comments on the article, it would appear that the average Ars Technica reader would agree with me. Nothing I'm saying here is particularly new (to me or anyone else) but I agree that, while piracy is a problem, the measures taken to prevent piracy are, as a consumer, even more annoying. Where is the balance drawn?

Hidden from sight

Behind-the-scenes changes are going on here in terms of domain services and the like. The astute reader might remember that I've accumulated a small collection of domains: WalkingSaint.com, BurtonSimmons.com, BurtonSimmons.info, and more. While I have web pages at all these domains, other services (such as mail) haven't always been fully functional. In the last week or so I've been changing that.

Probably the biggest change is the switch from self-hosting of email services to using Google Apps for email (and other services). This allows me to have the Goog do my spam filtering (which is good) but also use them as a trusted sender. Self-hosting my mail server means that, since at some point it's just on a consumer cable modem, many larger email providers won't accept mail from it because they think it's spam. Irritating, but this gives me a way around it.

The downside to this is that I have a lot of little devices that send email: firewalls, servers, etc., and they aren't necessarily "smart" enough to play well with Google's email service. Still trying to figure that one out (and why it's happening, since I don't exactly get rich error messages from these devices.

So those are some of the changes that are happening. More are going to be coming down the pipeline - some of which will simplify my life, some of which might improve the reader experience, but all of which will probably be long overdue. Stay tuned!

Least Original Haiku Ever

Saturday, August 02, 2008
It's hard to explain
But, it seems, it rains in Spain
Mainly on the plain.
A 30-second Google search seems to indicate that no one had done this before...

Economic Downturn

Friday, August 01, 2008
They say that getting a job is a lot like getting married. You're making a commitment to spend a lot of time with someone, and you want to make sure you'll get along. Getting it wrong means misery, but getting it right can be delightful. I've been job hunting for months now, and while I've turned down some opportunities that were wrong, I'm having difficulty finding the one that's right.

The hardest part I have is with the process. I'm applying blind to a lot of places, because neither the school nor I seem to have a large, relevant network in Portland (where I really, really want to be.) Companies seem to like to shunt you towards their online application service, but the problem is there's no loop closure. I put all kinds of time and effort into the application, just to hear... nothing.

I've been told time and time again, "Don't take it personally." Don't take the fact that I'm being judged unworthy of a callback based on my resume (or, in some cases, and interview) personally? That's pretty difficult. Perhaps it's that I take pride in what I do and who I am, but "not taking it personally" is something I've having a rough time with. I'm a smart, hard-working, amazing guy. I'd be an asset just about anywhere. The chirping crickets out there are starting to get me down.

Perhaps it's not me, however. Only a few of my classmates in the MBA program found employment in Portland. Many have gone to Seattle, but some have gone as far as Montana and Texas to find gainful living. Like I said, I've turned down offers because I know where I want to be. It could just be the local economy. Will it change? Will the right opportunity come along soon?

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